YOUR IMPORTANT CHOICE: Choice of pattern, style, pattern size, fabric and color

To anyone deeply interested in dressmaking, a visit to a really good dress fabrics department can be one of the great pleasures of life. Certainly it's for me. I go from one gorgeous length of material to another, busily visualizing all the beautiful clothes I could make with them; and I can sit happily for an hour or more browsing through the paper pattern books, forgetful of time and the jostling shoppers around me.

Even if you are only mildly interested in making clothes, yet need to do so for economy’s sake, I am sure that just looking at the superb fabrics available will be enough to boost your enthusiasm.

This length of wool—what a beautiful suit it would make … this shimmering cotton— what an inspired choice for an evening dress... these glowing man-made fibers—what marvelous fabrics for summer dresses, flowery housecoats, stunning ensembles. The inexpensive fabrics can often be just as exciting as the costly ones in color and texture.

To let one’s imagination run riot like this is a good thing—new fabrics, new colors can give one new ideas about ways of dressing, and stop one’s fashion sense from getting into a rut. But having said this, I must stress that once your enthusiasm is aroused, you must come down to earth before you actually buy a length of material.

When you become your own couturier, you have a number of important choices.

(a) For your first attempt, it's important to choose a paper pattern which is simple to make.

(b) It is important to choose the right style for your figure type.

(c) It is important to choose the right size of pattern.

(d) It is important to choose the right fabric for the garment.

(e) It is important to choose the right color of fabric.

I will take each of these points in turn:


It is absolutely vital that you don't choose a paper pattern which is too complicated. For your first attempt at dressmaking, look only among the ‘easy-to-make’ styles. Pick an easy— to-sew pattern and you will sail through it; pick a difficult one and you will be discouraged from sewing for years, or perhaps even for ever.


How many times have you read fashion articles on choosing the right clothes to suit your figure? Again and again, I am sure, and perhaps it has not always meant a great deal to you because the advice ranged over so many figure types. Maybe you were not even sure what your figure type was. Maybe your figure type was not included. Perhaps you have no figure problem, and are lucky enough to be a well-proportioned ‘stock size’. You may have read that if you are tall you should wear this; if you are chubby you should avoid that. If you are neither tall nor chubby, you are still none the wiser o the styles to choose.

Firstly, therefore, I would like to suggest a very simple way of assessing the styles which suit you. I am sure you have found that some garments you already own make you feel well- dressed, while others fill you with gloom because they hinder rather than help your figure. Have a look at the clothes in which you feel at your best. Are they slim—fitting or loose and straight? Are they in shiny, thin fabrics or in thick, rough ones? Is the waist belted, or is there a jacket which falls straight to hip level? Look in a full-length mirror, and see whether there is any predominant direction of line. Generally speaking, lines or bands across the dress will add width, while straight up and down lines will give apparent height and slimness. What about the skirt width?—is the skirt straight, bell-shaped or full? Now try on the least favorite item in your wardrobe, something which you only wear as a last resort. What is it that makes it all wrong for you? If you can analyze the reasons why one garment is a success while the other just doesn't suit you, you will begin to have a good idea of the sort of styles to look for when you choose a pattern.

Just one cautionary tale, however, about choosing ‘your’ styles. I know a girl who discovered a few years ago that the sheath dress suited her better than any other style. It flattered her petite, trim figure.

She bought a sheath dress pattern, sleeve less and shaped to the waist, and made it up, most successfully. The next time she made a dress she used the same pattern, but this time a different fabric. When autumn came, she made up the same style in a woolen fabric, with wrist—length sleeves. Now, some years later, she is still using the same basic pattern for every dress that she makes. The only things she adapts are the fabric and the hemline. The result of this basically monotonous wardrobe is that even when she wears a new dress, hardly anybody notices because the style is always the same. Her skilled workmanship and the beautiful fabrics are, in a sense, wasted because of lack of variety.

Variety is, after all, the great attraction of dressmaking—you can be adventurous without necessarily ruining the budget. And because of the skill of the pattern manufacturers, you can, once you have become proficient at the task, be wearing copies of high-fashion models within weeks of their being shown by the couturiers or boutiques. If your fashion tastes are more moderate, you can still experiment towards styles which you had not thought would suit you.

In a schools program on careers broadcast some time ago one contributor, only eighteen but in her third year with a top dress house, spoke with great enthusiasm about her job as a seamstress, and of the advantages of learning her skill to such a high standard: ‘I can make all my own clothes in the very latest fashions,’ she said, ‘and for every garment I could buy in an ordinary retail shop I can make three for myself, in equally good or even better—quality material. If I marry and have children, my skill will still be of benefit to me. And apart from all that— I just love sewing.’


Here are a few pointers on figure types, and I suggest you read only the comments which apply to your own figure—if you read them all, you may be more confused than before.

If your figure is perfect. Obviously there is no such thing as the one perfect figure—many people have well-proportioned frames that couldn't be improved upon, yet they don't all conform to the same standards of measurement and weight. There isn't really an ‘average’ figure either. But if you are of medium or slightly-above-medium height, slim but not too thin, and can find a pattern size which suits you exactly in every detail, you can count your blessings. With a figure like yours you can afford to ignore the rules and simply wear the styles you like.

Be careful, though, that you do show your good figure to advantage. When loose, waist- concealing garments are in fashion they can be a godsend to some of us, but if you have a good slim waist and a midriff with some shape to it, try to bend the fashion rules a little and choose styles which flatter your figure.

If you think you are too short and too thin. Slim, petite girls should count themselves lucky but usually they don't , and spend all their time wondering how they can make themselves appear taller.

Vertical lines are the ones to favor if you want to ‘add height’. For example princess lines with narrow front panels, coat dresses with a line of buttons down the front, collars with narrow lapels leading from shoulder to waist line—all these will help to add an illusion of height to the figure.

Jackets should be fairly short, even waist— length, and it's preferable for an outfit to be in one color (skirt and jacket in different colors may make a small figure seem less well-proportioned). If you need a contrast of color, keep it high—a dark suit with a touch of white at the collar will give the right effect.

Try to avoid horizontal lines unless there are compensating factors which restore the balance. For instance a small person can often get away with a garment with a predominantly horizontal line, either because the color is light, or because of the cut of the jacket or skirt, or the fact that the fabric is fine and smooth.

Coarse, heavy fabrics, on the other hand, may overpower the tiny figure, and if the lines of the garment give a horizontal effect in addition, the result can be really disastrous.

If you feel you are too short and plump. Here you have the same kind of problem as above, only more so. All your efforts must be directed towards giving your garments a vertical or diagonal line. Separates don't usually suit this type of figure, especially separates in different colors. Fabrics should be smooth rather than heavy and rough, and jackets or over-blouses which just tip the hip-bone may help to camouflage a thick waist. Straight skirts are often preferable to bell-shaped ones for this figure, and flared skirts are rarely suitable even when they are in fashion.

If you are of normal height, but heavy hipped. Choose skirt shapes which are smooth over the hips but not tight and not too straight. A bell-shaped skirt can be flattering. An attractive, eye-catching neckline will often draw attention away from the hips; for instance a wide-lapelled or shawl collar, or a deep decorative collar.

If you are of normal height, but have a thick rib-cage and large waist. Concentrate on camouflage. If hips and legs are well- proportioned, a straight skirt topped by a fairly long jacket or overblouse will conceal much of the thickness, and a slim outline below the jacket will make the whole effect slimmer. Garments in one color are preferable to different colors for top and skirt—separates such as tuck-in blouses and skirts rarely suit this type of figure, as they draw too much attention to the rib-cage and waist.

If you are tall and too thin. Bright colors tend to add an appearance of fullness to the figure, and rounded, soft lines will help to avoid the angular look. Different colors for top and skirt will divide the figure and make it appear wider and less long. If you have thin arms, avoid long, thin sleeves. If your arms are long, three—quarter-length sleeves are perhaps the most becoming.

If you are tall and heavy. Simple clothes are best, but the lines should not be too severe— gentle curves, draped effects, diagonal lines will all help to slenderize without adding apparent height. Fabrics with a large pattern should be avoided, and those with a high luster will generally tend to give a ‘large’ effect. Some large figures will take a fairly straight (though not tight—fitting) skirt, with a softly draped top. If arms are heavy, avoid sleeveless dresses, and be sure that sleeves are not tight by measuring the pattern carefully and comparing with your actual arm measurements.


The third point to remember is the importance of using the right size of pattern for your figure. If the store is out of the size you need, don't be tempted to buy the nearest size to it. It may save you from waiting a few days before be ginning the garment, but it certainly will not save you time in the end, because adjustments will have to be made to the pattern which may throw out the line and style completely. Unless you have much experience of dressmaking it could take you many hours to achieve your correct fit.

Modern paper patterns are one of life’s technical miracles. Hundreds of thousands of patterns, in a vast range of top—fashion designs, and in a wide range of sizes, are sold every week, and yet each pattern is accurate to a degree which is quite amazing.

The pattern companies spend a great deal of time and trouble in analyzing the many figure types. The large pattern catalogues which they print always include pages of instructions on the way to choose the correct size of pattern. It is well worth studying these pages carefully.

Many home dressmakers believe that one only has to choose a pattern in the correct bust size for the made—up garment to fit perfectly. Yet this isn't so. Just as no two people look alike facially, so no two people have exactly the same figure. As I have mentioned already, there are hundreds of basic figure shapes to every bust size in the range.

As you will soon see the pattern companies usually divide figure types into various categories, for example you may find a pattern book with the following descriptions: Pre-teen, Teen, Junior Misses’, Women’s, Junior Petite and Half-size. These don't refer to age-groups, but to figure types. A Junior figure, for example, usually corresponds to the measurements of a young girl, but a middle-aged woman could have exactly the same measurements and proportions. Similarly it's quite possible for a school girl to need a pattern from the Women’s range. Now another sizing range has been introduced, called ‘New Sizing’.

What is new sizing?

There are certain changes, agreed by the Measurement Standard Committee of the Pattern Fashion Industry, and adopted by all the major pattern companies. The changes were introduced jointly so that patterns correspond more closely with standard ready-to—wear sizing. All patterns which are based on the new sizing bear the distinctive ‘New Sizing’ mark, with white lettering in a red rectangle.

The following pattern companies are adopting the new standard body measurements:

  • The Butterick Publishing
  • Blackmore Pattern Service
  • Le Roy/Weldon Pattern Service
  • Maudella Patterns
  • The McCall Publishing
  • Practical Fashions
  • Simplicity Patterns
  • Style Patterns
  • Vogue Pattern

The Measurement Standard Committee of the Pattern Fashion Industry have prepared answers to a number of questions which may come to mind in connection with the new sizing. They have kindly allowed me to reproduce a condensed version of these Qs and A’s.

Q. How do the measurements of the ‘New Sizing’ patterns differ from the former type?

A. As a general rule, one buys a pattern one size smaller in ‘New Sizing’ than in the former sizing. For example:

Former sizing

Bust 34

Size 14

New sizing

Bust 34

Size 12

The waistline in ‘New Sizing’ is slightly smaller in proportion to the bust and hips than in the former sizing.

Q. Do all patterns have the new sizing?

A. No, some patterns remain with the former sizing.

Q. How does one know which styles in the pattern catalogues are based on the new sizing?

A. All patterns using the new standard body measurements are clearly marked with the distinctive ‘New Sizing’ symbol, both in the pattern catalogue and on the pattern envelope.

Q. Are the measurement charts for both the former and the ‘New Sizing’ measurements included in the pattern catalogues?

A. Yes.

Q. If one is buying a pattern marked ‘New Sizing’, does one purchase the same size pattern as in ready-to—wear clothes, for example size 14 or size i6?

A. You may find you will be purchasing the same size. However this may not always be true, so be sure to check the red measurement chart in the catalogue to determine your pattern size.

Q. How does one determine one’s correct pattern size?

A. Pattern sizes are based on body measurements. These are the actual measurements in inches of bust, waist, hip and back waist length, taken over the foundation garment you normally wear. (These measurements should be checked periodically.) From the body measurements you can select your correct size, by comparing them with those on the charts in the pattern catalogues. Your bust measurement is the key to your correct size for all garments except skirts and slacks.

Q. How, then, does one decide on the right size for skirt and slacks patterns?

A. By waist measurement. But if your hip measurement is larger than the size allowed for in the pattern, select your size by the hip measurement and then adjust the waistline.

Q. Have the names of the figure types changed in the new sizing?

A. They remain the same except for a new Young Junior/Teen figure type which replaces the Teen, Pre-Teen and Sub-Teen types. All patterns within this new figure type are marked on the envelope.

Q. How do I determine the figure type I should use?

A. By comparing your body measurements with those shown on the chart. A description and diagram of each figure type is found on the measurement chart. The height and back waist length measurements are probably the most important measurements in determining your figure type. If you select a pattern marked ‘New Sizing’ refer to the new sizing chart.

Q. Are there any changes in the size ranges within the different figure types?

A. Yes, most have been extended to correspond more closely to ready-to-wear sizes.

Q. So far we have been discussing body measurements. ‘What is meant by pattern measurements?

A. They are the actual measurements of the pattern pieces, from seamline to seamline, and consequently, they are the measurements of the finished garment.

Q. Is there the same amount of ease in all patterns?

A. No, the amount of ease depends on the style of garment. In a Misses’ basic style with fitted bodice, set—in sleeve and a waistline seam, the ease at the bustline is about 3 in. A bodice with raglan sleeves will have more ease; kimono sleeves still more. A strapless evening dress will have less than the normal ease.

Q. Does one buy the same size pattern for a coat or jacket as for a dress or blouse?

A. Yes, you still select the pattern according to your bust size, since the pattern is made to include the amount of ease necessary. The aver age suit jacket is sized to wear over a light blouse, and the average coat to wear over a dress.

Q. What size does one buy if a pattern includes more than one type of garment such as a blouse and slacks pattern?

A. Purchase by bust measurement.

Q. Has the sizing for Toddlers’, Children’s and Girls’ patterns changed?

A. There have been minor changes in the measurements, but these don't affect the pattern size you choose. However, it's always best to check the measurements on the back of the pattern envelope.

Q. Have any changes been made in the Men’s and Boys’ sizing?

A. No, the sizing remains the same.

The body measurement charts reproduced on p. 51 with the various measurements corresponding to each figure type, may serve to show you how important it's that you choose the correct pattern.

Let me give you an example. Perhaps your bust size is 34 in. and you have always been in the habit of choosing a Misses’ pattern. This provides for a 34 in. bust, 26 in., waist, 36 in. hip and 16 in. back waist length. (Or in the ‘New Sizing’ range the measurements would be the same except that the waist would be 25 in. instead of 26 in.)

Perhaps you have slimmer-than-average hips and are short-waisted, and have automatically had to alter the pattern pieces with every garment you make for yourself. Perhaps it has not occurred to you that by choosing a pattern in the Junior Petite range, in the ‘New Sizing’, you could find a pattern with the following measurements: 34 in. bust, 25 in. waist, 35 in. hip and 15 in. back waist length. If these correspond to your measurements, there will be no alteration at all to do.

So the moral is: whatever your bust size, if you find you always have to make pattern alterations, check first to see whether there is another figure type pattern which would suit you better. If you can find the style you like in the pattern size you like, you’ll save yourself a considerable amount of time and trouble.

Once you know how the pattern company rates your figure, you can be careful when selecting a style to choose one where there is a pattern available for your figure type. For instance, you may be attracted by: ‘Misses’ one—piece dress with belted waist, choice of long or short sleeves’, but if your figure bears no relation to the Misses’ range you will need to look for another style.

Later I will be dealing with the method of taking a complete record of your measurements. But for the moment, the important measurements you will need in order to select your pattern size are: Bust: ___

Waist: ___

Hips: ___

Back Waist Length: ___

These measurements, and the method of arriving at them, are described elsewhere in this guide (items 1, 2, 3 and 4, figs. 68, 69, 70 and 71) and are marked with asterisks for quick reference.


Having chosen your pattern, you must be guided by the pattern manufacturer on the best type of fabric for the garment.

On almost all paper pattern envelopes there is a section headed ‘Suggested Fabrics’. Do not ignore this—it is the product of experience, and usually the choice of fabric is wide.

Many of the rigid views about the right garment for the occasion now no longer hold good. Girls go dancing in slacks and boots, wear their smartest ‘Sunday-best’ clothes to the office, and their most casual leisure wear at the weekend. At one time conformity in dress and a sense of occasion were very important; now the aim is to be different and adventurous. Consequently rules of dress are difficult to define, and one can only offer a brief guide to the different fabrics used for different purposes.

Plain garments for day wear in town or office

Smooth wools, flannels, light-weight tweeds, firmly-woven woolen dress materials, cotton/ wool mixtures, knitted or woven Courtelle, Orion, Acrilan, Crimplene and other synthetic fabrics. For blouses: cotton, rayon, nylon, Terylene, etc.

Country wear

Usually heavier cloths, such as Harris and other heavy tweeds, and the heavy-quality linens, are suitable and durable.

Day dresses

Many different fabrics are suitable including fine wools, heavier linens, synthetic fabrics containing Courtelle, Crimplene, etc., jersey fabrics, crêpes, and so on, the choice depending on the season. Cotton fabrics, especially those with special finishes, and dresses of Terylene or Dacron, Tricel or Courtelle, make ideal summer wear.

Evening wear

Virtually any of the fine fabrics—cottons, linens, silk, and many of the fine synthetic fabrics—are used for evening wear. Rayon is widely used for evening dresses, from sheerest rayon georgette to heavy rayon velvet, and Tricel is a popular and very practical fabric. The material you choose will depend to some extent on the nature of the occasion: a formal dinner may call for a sheer, luxurious fabric which drapes well, while an informal dance for a teenager may call for nothing more elaborate than a simple cotton dress or skirt and top.

Leisure wear and sports wear

Many of the new stretch fabrics are proving ideal for sports and leisure wear—more about them in Section 6. They may require a new approach to sewing techniques, but with care you can make such outfits with flair and style.

Many of the fabrics’ you see in your local store will be blends or mixtures of fibers, either natural or man—made, or the two together. The skilled blending or mixing of different fibers normally imparts to a fabric the advantages of each, for example a wool/Terylene mixture will have the warmth of wool yet the strength of Terylene.

Fabrics and fibers are dealt with in detail in Section 6.


Having advised you to take notice of the pattern manufacturer’s comments on choice of fabric, I must stress that this rule doesn't apply to color. Never be so slavish to the picture on the pattern envelope that you only consider buying a fabric in the same color. The dress may look outstanding in, for example, emerald green, but this doesn't mean that it's automatically right for your coloring and figure type.

Nowadays there is almost no bar to the colors one may wear. At one time it was almost taboo for a red-headed woman to wear shocking pink, or for colors such as blue and green or pink and orange to be mixed. Today, however, if you mix colors which shout at each other, you are right in the fashion. No doubt this will change again all too soon. But the point to remember, whatever fashion decrees, is that there are bound to be some colors which suit you better than others. The great advantage of making your own clothes is that you can afford to make mistakes occasionally without wasting too much money.

PREV: MODERN SEWING MACHINES: Their selection, use and care NEXT: SEWING COURSE FOR BEGINNERS: A twelve-point plan for professionalism Home

Friday, 2012-06-01 15:14